State Dept. denies relying on Taliban pledge to allow safe passage for evacuees: 'This is not about trust'

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State Department spokesman Ned Price denied that the Biden administration was relying on the Taliban’s pledge to allow safe passage for Afghan allies and others seeking to leave the country, asserting that U.S. officials have “significant sources of leverage” should the group renege on its commitment.

The extent of the Biden administration’s trust in the Taliban’s pledge was a point of contention in the department’s regular press briefing on Monday. When asked about U.S. efforts to reassure vulnerable Afghans fearing retaliation from the Taliban, Price initially noted that the Taliban had “agreed and committed to provide and to permit safe passage” to Americans as well as “third-country nationals and to Afghans.”

While Price said the Biden administration was “focused on deeds, not words” regarding the pledge, his response prompted a question about how officials could trust the Taliban not to retaliate against Afghans who aided U.S. forces over the last two decades.

“We are not, in any way, trusting the Taliban. This is not about trust,” Price said. “This is about what’s in our interests and also what’s in the interests of the people of Afghanistan, and those two things are aligned.”

“This is not about asking permission, this is not about establishing any sort of formal relations,” Price added. “This is about doing all we can to facilitate safe passage, to ensure that the Taliban know that any effort to impede the evacuation of American citizens, to impede our operations while this is up and running, would be met with a very swift and severe response. That has been our message.”

The Biden administration has ramped up efforts to evacuate thousands of people stranded at Kabul’s airport following the Taliban takeover. Thousands are seeking Special Immigrant Visas to leave the country amid concerns that violence will ensue following the impending U.S. withdrawal.

Price argued that the Taliban would need the support of the international community to maintain a functioning economy and effective control over Afghanistan. He noted that the U.S. government and international allies had “significant sources of leverage” over the regime.

“We have been very clear that those things would be quite difficult, if not impossible, if the Taliban do not live up to their basic commitments, if they deny the rights of their citizens, if they deprive more than half of their population of their basic rights, if they commit the sort of atrocities that we’ve all seen take place in Afghanistan over the years,” Price added.

U.S. officials have evacuated about 37,000 people since Aug. 14 and approximately 42,000 people since the end of July, according to the White House. The tally included roughly 10,400 people evacuated by U.S. military flights over the previous 30 hours.

Price said the Biden administration was “committed to helping as many Afghans at-risk as we possibly can,” adding that the U.S. commitment to those who remained in Afghanistan would continue beyond Aug. 31. 

He declined to say whether evacuation operations could continue beyond the Aug. 31 deadline that Biden initially imposed.

“President Biden will ultimately have to decide when this operation comes to a close. I can tell you that it is our goal to move as quickly as we can and as efficiently as we can to bring to safety as many people as we can,” Price said.

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